Saturday, February 13, 2010

Forty Years of Black Sabbath

It was forty years ago today, on 13 February 1970 ( a Friday, fittingly enough) that the eponymous debut album from heavy metal band Black Sabbath was released. The album was like no other album that had ever been released. For one thing , it was the first fully heavy metal album, with tuned down guitars cranked to maximum volume. While a few bands had previously featured songs that could be considered heavy metal on their albums (such as The Beatles, The Who, and Led Zeppeln), Black Sabbath was the first band to release an album that was entirely heavy metal. For another thing, the songs on the album dealt with the occult or fantasy. Indeed, the closest thing to a love song, "N.I.B.," sung from the point of view of Lucifer!

Black Sabbath formed in 1968 after the breakup of a band called Mythology, which featured Terence "Geezer" Butler on bass and Tony Iommi on guitar. The two joined together with drummer Bill Ward and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, who had been members of a band called Rare Breed. The new band also featured Jimmy Phillips on slide guitar and Alan "Aker" Clarke on saxophone and played rather jazzy blues tunes. The band was named "The Polka Tulk Blues Band (after a brand of cheap talcum powder Ozzy's mother had bought or a Pakistani clothing store, depending on the story)," which was later shortened to "Polka Tulk." It was not long after Phillips and Clarke were dropped that the quartet renamed themselves "Earth." Earth would prove to have some success, playing not only in England, but in Denmark and Germany as well. For a very brief time Tony Iommi left Earth for Jethro Tull, even appearing with the band on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus television special, but returned to Earth soon afterwards.

It soon became obvious that Earth would have to change its name. There was another English band at the time called Earth, resulting in confusion between the two bands. Indeed, fans who showed up to see the other band named Earth were often displeased with the band's heavy 12 bar blues sound. As to why Earth renamed themselves "Black Sabbath," the stories vary. One tale is that it reflected Geezer Butler's interest in the occult at the time, particularly the novels of Dennis Wheatley. Another tale is that it was taken from the song "Black Sabbath," which supposedly was written when the band was still named "Earth." A third tale told by Ozzy is that the name was taken from the Boris Karloff movie Black Sabbath, which was playing at a theatre near their rehearsal studio. Regardless, the new name marked a shift in the band's sound, their new goal to produce the musical equivalent of horror movies. Influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Ten Years After, and 12 bar blues, Black Sabbath shifted to a much heavier sound, characterised by heavily amplified, tuned down guitars and dark lyrics. Much of their early music was characterised by the musical interval called the tritone and also the Diabolus in musica (literally "the Devil in music").  Quite simply, Black Sabbath became the first heavy metal band.

It was in December 1969 that Black Sabbath was signed to Philips Records. Their first single was "Evil Woman," a song originally recorded by Minneapolis based band Crow in 1968. "Evil Woman" failed to chart, which, fortunately for the band was not an omen of things to come. Recorded in late January, Black Sabbath's self titled debut album was released on 13 February, 1970. As mentioned earlier, it was an album like no other released before. Not only was it far heavier than any rock album previously released, it also dealt with subject matter that had rarely been touched upon in rock lyrics. The song "Black Sabbath" was inspired in equal parts by horror movies and Dennis Wheatley novels. "Behind the Wall of Sleep" drew its inspiration from the H. P. Lovecraft story of the same name. "The Wizard" was inspired by Gandalf from Tolkien's works. Perhaps the most shocking song on the album at the time was "N.I.B.," a song sung from the point of view of the Devil. Contrary to popular belief, the song's title is not short for "Nativity in Black," but instead a reference to Bill Ward's goatee, which resembled a pen nib. As to the song itself, it is not actually about Satan seducing someone, but about Lucifer being redeemed in the end by love.

Although the album Black Sabbath was revolutionary at the time, particularly given it is considered by many to be the first heavy metal album, it was lambasted by critics. Despite the venom spewed towards the album in most reviews, Black Sabbath reached #8 on the UK albums chart. It was released in May, 1970 in the United States, where it reached #23 on the Billboard 100. In retrospect the album would prove influential. It not only provided the basic musical style for the heavy metal genre, but grist for the subject matter it would cover as well.

Having achieved success in the United States, Black Sabbath returned to the studio to record their next album in June, 1970. The new album marked a move away from the occult subject matter of the first album. The song "War Pigs" was a protest against the Vietnam War. "Paranoid" centred on the subject of paranoia. "Iron Man" was a science fiction epic about a man turned to metal. "Fairies Wear Boots" dealt with an individual who is seeing fairies wearing, well, boots. The album was initially to be called War Pigs, but was renamed Paranoid because Warner Brothers (Black Sabbath's stateside label) feared a backlash from those who supported the Vietnam War. The album was released as Paranoid on October 1970 in the UK and January 1971 in the U.S. The single "Paranoid" reached #2 on the UK singles chart. The album itself would become the only Black Sabbath to reach #1 on the UK albums chart. In the United States it broke the top ten of the Billboard album chart. While Paranoid was a success, like the first album it was ravaged by critics. It would be the success of the album that would lead to the band's first U.S. tour in December 1970.

Black Sabbath's third album Master of Reality would be released only several months after Paranoid, on 21 July 1970. The album would mark a shift in the sound of the band, even including two softer ballads.  The subject matter also varied on the album. "After Forever" was undoubtedly  Christian in tone, while "Lord of This World" portrayed Satan as mocking his own followers."Children of the Grave" was a war protest song. Sadly, it was at this time that Black Sabbath began to dabble more heavily in drugs, from pills to cocaine. Indeed, the lead song on the album, "Sweet Leaf," was about cannabis. In the end, drug usage would partially be responsible for the disintegration of the band. As with the first two albums, Master of Reality was panned by critics. Regardless, it once more proved successful, reaching #5 in the UK and #8 in the U.S.

After a constant schedule of recording and touring, Black Sabbath took a break after Master of Reality. Their next album would not be released until 25 September, 1972. The new album marked a new era of experimentation for the band, as Black Sabbath began to utilise piano and strings. Indeed, the album included the ballad "Changes," a marked departure for the band. Black Sabbath had wanted to title the album Snowblind, after the lead song on the album's second side. As the song "Snowblind" dealt with cocaine, however, the label saddled the album with the generic title Black Sabbath Volume 4. Critics were once more dismissive of the album, despite Black Sabbath's expanding musical style. The album was a success on the charts, however, reaching #13 on the Billboard chart.

It was as the band set to work on their next album that their drug usage began to take a toll. The band convened at the Record Plant in Los Angeles to record, only to find themselves unable to come up with ideas. After a month with no results, Black Sabbath returned to England to record there. After writing the song "Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath," the new album finally gelled. "Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath" was lyrically a return to the songs about the occult from the first album, while "Killing Yourself to Live" dealt with alcoholism. Musically the new album, titled Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath after its lead song, would be a departure for the band. Black Sabbath made use of synthesisers, strings, and complex orchestration. Surprisingly, it would be the first album to receive good reviews from critics. It also did well on the charts. Released on 1 December, 1973, it went to #4 on the UK charts, and #11 on the U.S. charts.

 For Black Sabbath's next album, Sabotage, the band decided to shift back to a purer, rock sound. Gone were the complex orchestrations. The album contained some heavier material, such as "Symptom of  the Universe," as well as some lighter material, such as "Am I Going Insane (Radio)."  Released on 28 July, 1975,  the album was also well received by critics. Unfortunately, it did not see the success of previous Black Sabbath albums. Sabotage only cracked the top twenty on the UK chart and #28 in the U.S. It was the first Black Sabbath album not to achieve platinum status in the United States.

Black Sabbath's next album would generally be regarded as the worst album produced by the original lineup. Technical Ecstasy saw Black Sabbath make use of keyboards more than they had before. The album also departed from Black Sabbath's generally fantastic, often dark subject matter for more mundane subjects, such as prostitution ("Dirty Women") and drug vending doctors ("Rock 'n' Roll Doctor"). The album only went to #51 on the Billboard  chart. Like the earliest albums it was ravaged by critics. Unlike the earliest albums it is not regarded as a classic.

It was not long after Technical Ecstasy was finished that the strain placed on the band for years through drug use, touring, and recording began to take its toll. Ozzy Osbourne left the band,. Black Sabbath brought in former Fleetwood Mac vocalist Dave Walker to replaced Ozzy, and he actually appeared with the band on the BBC show Look! Hear! Ozzy started a solo project, which included ex-Dirty Tricks members John Frazer-Binnie, Terry Horbury, and Andy Bierne. By January 1978, however Ozzy changed his mind. He returned to Black Sabbath. This complicated things to a degree, as Ozzy would sing none of the songs they had written and they had to start from scratch. The album Never Say Die would take some time to complete because of the band's drug usage, with the band having to cut sessions short because they were too doped up. Finally, Never Say Die was released on 28 September, 1978. The album featured a diverse mix of subject matter, from optimism in the face of adversity ("Never Say to Die") to gangsters ("Johnny Blade") to death ("Junior's Eyes"). The album did well in the UK, hitting #12 on the album chart. In the United States it did not do quite so well.  It only went to #69. It took a full twenty years to be certified gold in the United States.

It was after the tour for Never Say Die that Black Sabbath returned to Los Angeles to work on their next album. Unfortunately, there would not be a next album. The entire band was ingesting a good deal of drugs at the time, and Ozzy was getting drunk on top of the drugs. The band found itself at a standstill with regards to working on the album. At last it was decided that Ozzy should be fired. Ozzy would go onto a successful solo carer. As to Black Sabbath, they hired Ronnie James Dio, formerly of Rainbow, as his replacement.

While I do like the work that Ronnie James Dio did with Geezer Butler, Bill Ward, and Tony Iommi, I do not believe it can truly be called "Black Sabbath," regardless of what the record labels said. With Dio as their lead singer, Black Sabbath's sound changed dramatically. Indeed, Ozzy's live album featuring vintage Black Sabbath tunes, Speak of the Devil, sounded more like Black Sabbath than the alleged Black Sabbath live album Live Evil. And while over the years many projects in which Tony Iommi was involved were labelled Black Sabbath, I do not consider them to be Black Sabbath either. Indeed, by the time of the album Seventh Star released in 1986 as "Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi," Geezer Butler and Bill Ward had left. It wasn't "Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi," it was "Tony Iommi Without Black Sabbath." In my mind, there wouldn't be another true Black Sabbath album until the live album Reunion, which recorded the reunion tour of the original Black Sabbath from 1997.

Although lambasted by critics in their early years, Black Sabbath was a ground breaking band. While heavy metal had been developing for some time in the late Sixties, it was Black Sabbath who would be the first heavy metal band. As such they would set the course for the genre for the rest of its history. The fantastic and occult themes of Black Sabbath's first album would be repeated endlessly to this day. The horror movie motif which Black Sabbath utilised would be taken up by such artists as Alice Cooper and W.A.S.P. And while individual songs rarely cracked the charts, many of them are regarded as classics today, including "N.I.B.," "Paranoid," "Iron Man," "Children of the Grave," and so on. Black Sabbath, Paranoid, and Master of Reality all three made Rolling Stone magazine's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" in 2003. While critics may have scoffed at Black Sabbath in 1970, they would leave a huge legacy behind.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Godspeed Stuntman Bobby Hoy and Frisbee Inventor Fred Morrison

Bobby Hoy

Stuntman and actor Bobby Hoy passed on February 8 at the age of 82.  He was well known for his skill with horses.

Bobby Hoy was born on April 3, 1927 in New York City. He was only seven years old when he started working part time on a ranch. It was near the end of World War II that he joined the United States Marine Corps. It was in 1946 that he took a job in a ranch in Nevada. His first stunts were performed for the Western Ambush, released in 1950. It was also in Ambush that he first acted, appearing in a bit part as a trooper.The Fifties saw Hoy become very much in demand as a stuntman. He performed stunts in movies as diverse as The Black Shield of Falworth, Destry, A Star is Born, The Defiant Ones, and To Hell and Back. Among the most notable films upon which he worked were North by Northwest and Spartacus (on which Kirk Douglas accidentally cracked one of his ribs). He also did stunts for the television series Death Valley Days, Laramie, and Johnny Ringo. As an actor he appeared in such films as The Black Shield of Falworth, Revenge of the Creature, Tammy and the Bachelor, No Time for Sergeants. He guest starred on the TV shows Have Gun--Will Travel, Sea Hunt, Steve Canyon, and December Bride.

In 1961 Bobby Hoy co-founded Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures. The Sixties him perform stunts for the movies The Ugly American, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Shenandoah, The Great Race, Nevada Smith, Beau Geste, and Che. He also did stunts for the TV shows Bonanza and The Iron Horse. He guest starred on several TV shows, including The Tall Man, Bat Masterson, The Jack Benny Programme, The Untouchables, The Rifleman, Combat, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Star Trek. He was a regular on The High Chaparral as ranch hand Joe Butler. He acted in such movies as The Love Bug5 Czrd  and 5 Card Stud.

The Seventies saw Bobby Hoy perform stunts for such movies as The Don is Dead, The Gauntlet, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and The Enforcer. He also performed stunts for the series The Streets of San Francisco. He guest starred on such shows as Mission Impossible. Search, Kung Fu, Hec Ramsey, The Magician, The Rockford Files, and Wonder Woman. He appeared in such movies as Bank Shot, The Duchess and the Dirt Water Fox, and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

 From the Eighties into the Nineties  Bobby Hoy performed stunts on the TV show The Fall Guy, the mini-series North and South, and the movies Seems Like Old Times, Fighting Back, and Legal Eagles. He guest starred on Quincy M.E., Dallas, The Fall Guy, Magnum P.I., Beauty and the Beast, The Young Riders, and Zorro. He was a semi-regular on the series Our House.

Bobby Hoy was arguably one of the greatest stuntmen of all time. He reportedly had a natural gift for dealing with horses in a way no one else could. He either acted or performed stunts for a good number of TV Westerns. He also performed one of the most daring stunts on film. As Tony Curtis's double in The Defiant Ones he faced the currents of a river while chained to Ivan Dixon (Sidney Potier's stunt double). He was certainly one of the best.

Fred Morrison

Fred Morrison, the inventor of the Frisbee, passed on February 9 at the age of 90.

Fred Morrison was born in Richefiled, Utah in 1920. It was in 1937 that he first developed the idea for the Frisbee at a Thanksgiving picnic. He and his future wife Lucille were throwing a cake pan to each other. When passers by took an interest in the pan, Morrison decided he had an idea for a new toy. The two began selling cake pans on the beach for 25 cents apiece. During World War II Morrison served in the United States Army Air Corps, flying both bombers and fighters. Shot down over Germany, he was held prisoner in Stalag XIII.

Following the war Fred Morrison worked as a carpenter. He also used the knowledge of aerodynamics he gained during the war to develop a better flying disc. Initially named the "Flyin' Saucer," he redesigned the product in 1955 and renamed it the Pluto Platter. Sadly, the Pluto Platter proved no more successful than earlier designs. Fortunately Morrison's fortunes changed when he met Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin of fledgeling toy company Wham-O. Morrison licensed his flying disc to Wham-O, who renamed it the Frisbee (generally said to be named for the Frisbie Pie Company, although Knerr maintained it was named for a comic strip character). The Frisbee became Wham-O's first hit in the toy industry and arguably its biggest hit as well.

Fred Morrison would invent a few more toys, but none proved as successful as the Frisbee. He both operated a small airport and raised quarter horses on a ranch in Utah.

In inventing the Frisbee, Fred Morrison created one of the most popular toys of all time. Indeed, had he never developed the Frisbee, toy history may have developed very differently. At the time that Wham-O bought the rights to Morrison's flying disc, they were still a small company struggling to make it on slingshots, boomerangs, tomahawks, and crossbows. The Frisbee turned Wham-O into a contender in the toy industry. It is quite possible that if it was not for the Frisbee, we  would not have the Hula Hoop, the Super Ball, Silly String, or any of the other toys later developed by Wham-O. What is more, while the Hula Hoop and Super Ball would become outright fads, popular for a short time, the Frisbee has remained consistently popular. Hundreds of millions of Frisbees continue to be sold to this day.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writers Aleen Leslie and Barry Blitzer Pass On

Aleen Leslie

Aleen Leslie, creator of A Date with Judy and the oldest living member of the Writers Guild of America, passed on February 2. She was on 101 years old, just a few days shy of her 102nd birthday. The cause was pneumonia.

Aleen Leslie was born on February 5, 1908 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She attended the Ohio State University. She studied playwriting, but the Depression cut her studies short when she could not afford to finish college. It was not long after she had become the secretary for the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment that she started writing the column "One Girl Chorus" for The Pittsburgh Press. She wrote the column for close to a decade. Using a press pass she gained access to Columbia Pictures. She started out writing Three Stooges shorts before going onto feature films. She wrote the stories for the films Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and Affectionately Yours (1941), and the screenplay for The Stork Pays Off (1941).

It was in 1941 that Aleen Leslie created the radio show A Date with Judy. It was originally conceived as a vehicle for actress Helen Mack, but by the time the show debuted she was too old for the part. A Date with Judy debuted as a summer replacement for Bob Hope's show. A Date with Judy proved enormously successful. In 1948 a movie based on the radio show was released, starring Elizabeth Taylor. A comic book based on the radio show was published by National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics) from 1947 to 1960. The radio show ended its run in 1950, although a TV show based on the radio show debuted in 1951. It ran on and off until 1953 on ABC.

Throughout the Forties Aleen Leslie wrote several screenplays, many in the "Henry Aldrich"s series. She wrote the screenplays for Rosie the Riveter (1944), Father was a Fullback (1949), and Father Is a Bachelor (1950), and the stories for Go Chase Yourself and The Living North.

Aleen Leslie also wrote two novels, The Scent of Roses (1963) and The Windfall (1970). She also wrote a number of plays, one of which (Slightly Married) ran on Broadway for a short while.

 Aleen Leslie created one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. Although it is largely forgotten today, A Date with Judy ran for nine years and both a comic book and a movie were spun off from it. Among fans of Old Time Radio it still remains one of the most popular radio shows to have been produced.

Barry E. Blitzer

Television writer Barry E. Blitzer passed on January 27 at the age of 80. The cause was complications from abdominal surgery.

Barry Blitzer was born on April 21, 1929 in New York City . He grew up in Washington Heights, Manhattan. He attended the University of Georgia to major in journalism. During the Korean War he served in the United States Army. He was stationed in Germany and assigned to Armed Forces Radio.

Barry E. Blitzer's career in television began on the legendary sitcom The Phil Silvers Show (also known as Sgt. Bilko). He wrote his first episode for the series in 1955 and was one of the group of writers who collectively won an Emmy for the show in 1956. Blitzer went onto write episodes of The Ann Southern Show, I'm Dickens, He's Fenster, and Broadside. He was a frequent contributor to McHale's Navy, The Flintstones, and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. He also wrote episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and Get Smart.

The Seventies saw Blitzer write episodes of Barefoot in the Park, The Paul Lynde Show, Good Times, and Hot L Baltimore. The Seventies also saw Blitzer's career shift towards Saturday morning television. He wrote episodes of The Roman Holidays, The Lost Saucer, Land of the Lost, and Uncle Croc's Block. He was a story editor on The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang. In the Eighties he wrote for Love Boat and Too Close for Comfort.

In addition to the Emmy he shared with the other writers on The Phil Silvers Show, Blitzer also shared a Writers Guild Award nomination for an episode of Get Smart in 1968. He was also a guest lecturer at the University of Texas. Beginning in October, 1993 he wrote a humour column for The Pacific Palisades Post.

Barry E. Blitzer was one of the last great comedy writers of the Fifties. Indeed, he was the last surviving member of the Phil Silvers Show who shared the Emmy in 1956. His scripts were always exceedingly funny, possessed of a wry sense of humour. If The Phil Silvers Show is still remembered as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, it is because of men like Barry Blitzer.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Writer Ralph McInerny R,I.P.

Ralph McInerny, author and Catholic theologian best known for his series of Father Dowling mysteries, passed on January 29 at the age of 80.

Ralph McInerny was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on February 24, 1919. In 1951 he received a bachelor's degree from St, Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1954 he received a master's degree from the University of Minnesota. In 1952 he received a master's degree from the University of Minnesota. In 1954 he received a doctorate from Laval University in Quebec. He taught for one year at Creighton University in Omaha, then started teaching at Notre Dame in 1955.

As a theologian Ralph McInerny was one of the top scholars on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. In fact, his first published book was a scholarly work, New Themes in Christianity in 1969. He would go onto write nearly twenty nonfiction works, not only on Catholicism but also on writing and Church Latin. His first published novel was Her Death of Cold, published in 1977. It was the first in the long running Father Dowling series. Father Dowling was a priest who had some very hard knocks earlier in his life. As a result he developed an acute concern in the welfare of humanity, including solving crimes. In all there would be 29 Father Dowling mysteries, with the final one, Stained Glass, published last year.The popularity of the series led to a TV show starring Tom Bosley as Father Dowling. It ran from 1987 to 1991.

McInerny also wrote other works of fiction. Under the pseudonym Monica Quill he wrote the Sister Mary Theresa series, about a crime solving nun. In all there were ten Sister Mary Theresa novels. He also wrote the University of Notre Dame series, centred on crime solving professor Roger Knight. In all there were six books in the University of Notre Dame series. He also wrote several individual novels. In all around 80 works of fiction. His final novel, Sham Rock, is going to be published this April.

Ralph McInerny was an extremely prolific writer. Indeed, it is somewhat amazing that he was able to not only publish a good many works of fiction, but a number of scholarly works as well. He was a very popular writer, his Father Dowling mysteries and University of Notre Dame series selling very well. If McInerny was a success as a writer, it was perhaps he had an innate understanding of character. His books also had an authenticity about them, informed as they were by his knowledge of Catholicism. It is for that reson that he has a legion of fans.a

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

English Actor Ian Carmichael Passes On

Actor Ian Carmichael OBE, who played both Lord Peter Wimsey and Bertie Wooster, passed on 5 February at the age of 89.

Ian Carmichael was born on 18 June, 1920 in Hull, Yorkshire. He attended Scarborough College and then Bromsgrove School in Worcestershire. Not particularly interested in school, he played with a dance band for a time before he took an interest in acting. He trained for a time at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He made his stage debut in 1939 as a robot in Karel and Josef Kapek’s RUR at the People’s Palace, Mile End, London. That same year he played Claudius in Julius Caesar at the Embassy in Swiss Cottage, London.

In 1940 Mr. Carmichael toured in the revue Nine Sharp before being commissioned in the British Army at Sandhurst. During World War II he served as a major in the 30th Armoured Brigade. Following the war Ian Carmichael returned to the stage. He made his first appearance on screen in Bond Street in 1948. In 1949 he appeared in uncredited roles in Trottie True and Dear Mr. Prohack. He also did a seven month tour in The Lilac with veteran comic actor Leo Franklin that year. He believed that gave him his best training as a light comedic actor.

The Fifties saw Mr. Carmichael appear in revues on the West End, such as The Lyric Revue (1951), The Globe Revue (1952), High Spirits (1952), and At the Lyric/Going to Town (1954).  It was in these revues that Mr. Carmichael established the sort of roles for which he was best known: bumbling Englishmen who nonetheless had perfect manners. He also continued to appear in such films as Ghost Ship (1952), Miss Robin Hood (1952), Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953), and Betrayed (1954). He made his television debut on Here's Television in 1951. As the Fifties continued, he appeared on the West End in such light comedies as Simon and Laura (1954)  Tunnel of Love (1957), The Love Doctor (1959), and The Gazebo (1960). He appeared in the films The Colditz Story (1955), the movie adaptation of Simon and Laura (1955), Private's Progress (1956), Lucky Jim (1957), I'm All Right Jack, and School for Scoundrels (1960). On television he appeared on Here and Now and BBC Sunday Night Theatre.

The Sixties saw Ian Carmichael appear on the West End in Critic’s Choice (1961), Devil May Care (1963). Say Who You Are (1965), and Getting Married (1967). He made his only appearance on Broadway in Boeing, Boeing in 1965. He appeared in the movies Double Bunk (1961), The Amorous Prawn (1962), Heaven's Above (1963), Hide and Seek (1964), and Smashing Time (1967). It would be his television work in the Sixties that he would be best known for .  Ian Carmichael starred as P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster in The World of Wooster from 1965 to 1967. From 1970 to 1971 he played Peter Lamb in Bachelor Father (not to be confused with the American show of the same name). He also appeared on television in Armchair Theatre, The Root of All Evil,and Play for the Day. 

It was in 1972 that Ian Carmichael was cast in one of his more famous roles, as Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsley in the TV series Lord Peter Wimsley. It ran from 1972 to 1975. He appeared in the films The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971), From Beyond the Grave (1973), and The Lady Vanishes. In 1983 he was the voice of Rat in the animated television adaptation of Wind and the Willows and the narrator of the subsequent series series The Wind and the Willows, which ran from 1984 to 1988. In 1989 he appeared in the film The Diamond Skulls.

The Nineties saw Mr. Carmichael doing more television. He was the narrator on the series Oh! Mr. Toad in 1990 . From 1992 to 1993 he starred as Sir James Menzies in the series Strathblair and in 1999 he appeared in four episodes of Wives and Daughters. His last work was on the series The Royal, on which he appeared from 2003 to 2009 as T. J. Middleditch.

As an Anglophile I cannot help but be saddened by the passing of Ian Carmichael. He was possibly the most English of actors, playing bumbling Englishmen with an alarming ease. He was perfect as the failure Henry Palfrey in School for Scoundrels and, although I have never seen the series (I want to), I have it on good authority that he was great as Bertie Wooster in The World of Wooster. Mr. Carmichael could play lovable losers, who nonetheless had perfect manners, with such aplomb that one could not help but root for him. Not that he was limited to playing bumblers. After all, he also played Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers' brilliant bon vivant detective who was always one step ahead of criminals. He was utterly convincing in the role, so much so it is hard for me to picture anyone else playing Lord Wimsey. Ian Carmichael was a great and beloved actor, whose passing, even at his age, no doubt makes many of us sad.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The 2010 Super Bowl Ads

At last night's Super Bowl, for many of us the big attraction was The Who playing the half time show. And The Who delivered, as they always do. Beyond The Who, however, for many of us the big draw is not the game itself, but the commercials that air during the games. Only the Oscars come close to matching the Super Bowl when it comes to commercials.

Sadly, I think this year's crops of adverts were a bit disappointing. The biggest problem is that some of the commercials were simply not very funny. Indeed, one of the biggest trends this year in Super Bowl commercials was "the stupid male." The Bud Light advert "Book Club" was one of the worst offenders, with a guy who apparently doesn't know Little Women was a novel. OF course, the other Bud Light commercials were not much better. Worse yet, a trend within the trend towards stupid males in Super Bowl adverts was that of scantily clad men. This is most obviously seen in the Dockers ad "Men Without Pants," and to a lesser degree in the Careerbuilder.Com ad "Casual Day." Okay, given the racy GoDaddy ads, I suppose turnabout is fair play. If Super Bowl commercials can feature scantily clad women, why not scantily clad men? The problem with this as I see it is that the scantily clad women in the commercials are all gorgeous, while the guys in the Dockers and Careerbuilder spots, well, were not good looking by any stretch of the imagination. Word of advice to advertisers, if you're going to have men in their briefs in your ads, at least make sure they're eye candy for the ladies!

Fortunately, there were some good commercials on the Super Bowl this year. Some of the best grew out of another trend in commercials, this one towards classic rock in ads. I suppose it may have been because The Who played the half time show, but a number of ads featured tunes from classic artists and even the artists themselves. Indeed, two of my all time favourite rock groups were represented in ads this year: The Who and Cheap Trick. If The Beatles had been included, it would have been all three of my favourite bands!

Among the commercials featuring classic rock was the Flo TV ad featuring a remix of The Who's "My Generation" featuring Will.I.Am and Slash. I like the remix (although not as much as the original), and it is available for download at The Who's official site. 100% of all proceeds go to Oxfam America’s Haiti Relief Efforts.

Audi's commercial "Green Police" is not only very funny, but features the talents of the legendary band Cheap Trick. The band remixed their classic hit "Dream Police" as "Green Police" for the advert, with very good results. The remix "Green Police" is available for download at Audi's Facebook page.

Another one of my favourite bands, Kiss, was also represented in an ad. Kiss has been the spokesmen for Dr. Pepper Cherry for a while, so naturally the soft drink featured the band in their Super Bowl commercial, along with some surprising guests...

Finally, the trailer for the game Dante's Inferno featured Bill Withers' classic of "Ain't No Sunshine When she's Gone." I think it was a great use of the song myself.

Of course, not every commercial featured songs from classic rock acts. In fact, as usual, most of the adverts focused more on humour than anything else. Perhaps the very best ad featured a superstar of another kind: Betty White. In the Snickers commercial "Betty White Plays Football," the greatest television comedienne of all time proves she can hold her own with the boys.

Google perhaps wins the prize for most ingenious advert. Using only the search engine itself and some specific searches, the Google spot "How to Impress a French Woman" proved that Super Bowl ads can be intelligent and funny. Remarkably, this is the first time the internet giant has ever advertised on the Super Bowl!

Doritos once more held their "Crash the Super Bowl" contest, in which amateurs submit their own commercials in hopes of a spot on the big game and big bucks. "Underdog" was the best of these ads, which proves that dogs are smarter than one thinks...

Kudos also go to Doritos' "House Rules" spot, in which a child puts his mother's suitor in his place (you can look that one up on YouTube or IFilm).

Humour wasn't the only feature in this year's ads. Budweiser, who seemed intent on offending the male sex with their Bud Light ads, had one of the best ads with "Fence." The ad features a friendship between a Clydesdale and an ox, that is very realistic to anyone who has grown up on a farm.

GoDaddy is known for their over the top commercials, with at least one banned each year (this year was no different, wit their spot "Lola" banned). Now I personally thought their ads this year were rather lame. They weren't particularly funny and brought nothing original to the table. I would not include one here save for the sad fact that I have a weakness for Danica Patrick. So sue me. This is their spot, "News."

For once the Super Bowl also featured trailers of movies I would actually like to see. Chief among was Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. This is a film to which I've looked forward ever since I saw the trailer in the theatre. Martin Scorsese does horror. I'm there. The other good trailers were to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and the remake of the Universal classic horror film, The Wolfman.

Of course, as I said earlier, I thought this year's crop of Super Bowl ads was disappointing. Indeed, beyond the stupid male ads, I found at least two ads downright offensive. While I know a good many people thought the spot for The Late Show featuring Dave Letterman, Oprah Winfrey, and Jay Leno was funny, as a Conan O'Brien fan I took it as a personal insult. And after his attacks on Leno, I am surprised Dave agreed to appear in the ad. Another ad was even more offensive. Personally, I think Focus on Family's anti-abortion ads featuring Tim Tebow had no place being on the Super Bowl. True, they were milder than many feared, but personally I think political ads have no place airing on the Super Bowl. I don't care if they are liberal, moderate, or conservative. The Super Bowl is a time for fun, not advancing agendas. Although I was not offended by them, I was horrified to see the E*Trade babies return for another Super Bowl. These spots are not funny, the babies are not cute, they are just downright creepy. I am honestly surprised they don't give me nightmares!

For those of you who are wondering, as usual, the advert embeds are courtesy of IFilm (although I think they have abandoned that name in favour of simply Spike, the cable channel which bought them a few years ago). You can see more of the Super Bowl commercials there.

While over all this year's Super Bowl ads were disappointing, I must say I am pleased with some of them. It is good to see classic rock prominently featured in some of them, as well as Betty White.  If I have one hope for next year it is that we will see no more commercials featuring stupid (and worse yet, stupid and under dressed) men, no more political ads, and no more E*Trade babies during next year's Super Bowl!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Disney's Pinocchio Turns 70

It was on this day in 1940 that Walt Disney's animated feature film Pinocchio was released. While Pinocchio was not a financial success on its first release, it would have a profound impact not only on Walt Disney Productions, but on animation history itself. Many regard the film  as the Walt Disney's greatest achievement and some of us regard it as the greatest animated film ever made.

Pinocchio was based on the novel Pinocchio: Tale of a Puppet by Carlo Collodi. As originally written, the novel was not meant for children. It was only after Collodi's editor suggested that its original unhappy ending (in which Pinocchio is hanged for his sins) be replaced with a happy ending (in which he becomes a real boy) that it took shape as a children's book.

It was before Disney's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, was released, that Walt Disney decided to adapt Collodi's novel as an animated feature film. Indeed, writing began on Pinocchio in November 1937, a month before Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was released. That having been said, the production met with some difficulties. Walt Disney determined that while people loved the story, they hated the character of Pinocchio in the novel. Indeed, in the novel Pinocchio is often unfeeling and malicious, and the novel itself is overly violent for a children's book. Adapting the novel so that its lead character would be more appealing to audiences would cause problems in the production. At one point in 1937 it was actually thought that Bambi (the other animated feature on which the studio was working) would be released first, while Pinocchio was held up due to story difficulties. According to The New York Times in a June 12, 1938 article, 2300 feet of footage for the film was tossed out because Walt Disney  "missed the feeling he had had in mind." The process of making Pinocchio a more sympathetic character was a long one. According to The New York Times at the time, Disney artists had initially used Attilio Massino's original illustrations to the novel as a model for the character. Over 18 months a newly created department for designing character models struggled to create the Disney version of Pinocchio. According to Bob Jones in charge of the department, in a reminiscence for the Disney Archives, at least 12 artists contributed ideas before the look of Pinocchio was finalised.

While artists  struggled over Pinocchio's appearance, the story itself was undergoing drastic changes. Somewhat mean spirited in the novel, Pinocchio was made more sympathetic. He was not so much a rogue as an innocent puppet who is easily misled and too often giving in to his own pleasures. Perhaps the biggest change from Collodi's novel came when Disney took the minor character of an unnamed, talking cricket and transformed him into Jiminy Cricket. Not only would Jiminy act as Pinocchio's conscience, he would also narrate the film. To this end Disney asked his animators to create a humanoid cricket who wore clothing. As with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, human beings provided the models for some of the characters. The look of Pinocchio was further refined when Dickie Jones, who voiced the character, was shot on 8 mm film. At times he even dressed the part. Sequence director Thornton Hee would dress as Stromboli and act out the part for Disney and his fellow animators. Marge Champion (the known as  Marjorie Bell), who had provided the model for Snow White, provided the model for The Blue Fairy. Interestingly enough, while Walter Catlett provided the voice for J. Worthington Foulfellow (AKA "Honest John"), according to a New York Times article as of February 25, 1940, the character  "...was based upon a couple of famous actor brothers whose last name begins with B." There have been guesses that these actor brothers were none other than John and Lionel Barrymore.

Pinocchio would boast a voice cast that was actually fairly well known at the time. Indeed, legendary singer, ukulele player, and actor Cliff Edwards first tested for the part of Jiminy Cricket. Disney thought his tones were too adult to voice the boy puppet, but thought his fellow Missourian was perfect for the role of Jiminy Cricket. It was the beginning of a life long friendship between the two men, and Edwards would voice Jiminy until his death. The role of Pinocchio would ultimaltely go to child actor Dickie Jones. The young actor had appeared in both Westerns (he was well known for his trick roping) and Our Gang short subjects. As of 1950 he was the voice of Henry Aldrich on the radio show The Aldrich Family. Walter Catlett was a vaudevillian and a character who had appeared in Bringing Up Baby and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Evelyn Venable, star of Death Takes a Holiday and other films, voiced the Blue Fairy. Perhaps the most famous actor to work on Pinocchio actually had all of his lines cut, except for one, single hiccup. Mel Blanc voiced Gideon, Honest John's cat and henchman. Blanc would only voice one other Disney film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where he only voiced the Warner Brothers characters.

Pinocchio ultimately took nearly three years to complete. A study guide to the film from the time states that 2,000,0000 drawing were created for the film, of which 300,000 were used.  Pinocchio utilised the multiplane camera, which also increased its costs. Only one sequence filmed by the multiplane camera could cost as much as $48,000. In the end Pinocchio  would cost $2.5 million, a colossal amount for any film of that time.

Pinocchio debuted on February 7, 1940 at the Center Theatre in New York City. The premiere was accompanied by an enormous amount of publicity, including new stories in over sixty major magazines and hundreds of more newspapers, an extensive merchandising campaign (including a three record set of the movie's songs), art shows at three different New York galleries, and a display on the production at the the New York Museum of Science and Industry in Radio City. Over all Pinocchio received sterling reviews. Frank S. Nugent in his February 8, 1940 review in The New York Times said that the film, " a blithe, chuckle-some, witty, fresh and beautifully drawn fantasy which is superior to "Snow White" in every respect but one: its score" and called it "...the best cartoon ever made." Variety referred to Pinocchio as "...substantial piece of entertainment for both young and old." The Hollywood Reporter noted on February 8 that the film received "one of the greatest ovations ever accorded a motion picture." Pinocchio would even become the first animated feature to be honoured with an Oscar. In fact, it received two: the Academy Award for Best Song (for "When You Wish Upon a Star") and the Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.

Sadly, while Snow White and the Seven Dwarves became the highest grossing feature film (until knocked off by Gone with the Wind), Pinocchio did not do nearly as well at the box office. Contrary to popular belief, however, it was not a total box office disaster. Sources disagree as to whether it made a profit in its initial release or not. One thing is clear. It did not drive Walt Disney Productions towards bankruptcy as popularly believed. Director Ben Sharpenstein thought the reason that Pinocchoio did not do as well as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves appealed more to adults while Pinocchio appealed more to children (who paid a cheaper ticket price then as now). This seems unlikely from reviews of the time (such as the one in Variety), not to mention the status of the film over the years. A more likely explanation is that World War II seriously hurt Pinocchio at the box office. Disney's profits in Europe dropped 80 percent with the outbreak of the war. The film was not released in Germany (it wouldn't be until 1951) and translated only into Spanish and Portuguese (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was translated into many more). It is significant that in its re-releases Pinocchio would more than recoup its costs.

Pinocchio would have a lasting impact on Walt Disney Productions. "When You Wish Upon a Star" became the studio's themes song. It was played as the theme for The Wonderful World of Disney (from its original name Disneyland onwards), in Disneys  Pictures' various logo openings, and at the various theme parks during certain events. Jiminy Cricket would become one of the best known and most enduring characters, appearing in his own film shorts, several episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Disney shows to this day. He voiced by the great Cliff Edwards until his death. Pinocchio would become the first Disney film ever released on DVD.

Of course, the impact of Pinocchio would go far beyond Disney itself. The film is still regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time. In 1994 Pinocchio was added to the United States National Film Registry. Pinocchio ranked second only to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as the greatest animated film of all time in the American Film Institute's Ten top Ten (the best ten films in ten American film genres) released in June 2008. In 2005 Time chose it as one of the greatest films released in the past 80 years, only one of two animated films to make the list (Finding Nemo was the other). To this day there are many who consider it to be Disney's greatest achievement.

That Pinocchio is counted among the greatest films of all time should be little wonder. It could well be the greatest achievement Walt Disney Productions ever made with regards to animation. The film has a depth and realism that many animated films lack even today. Pinocchio cost a good deal of money to make, and it shows on the big screen. The lasting appeal of Pinocchio goes beyond its superb technical qualities, however, as it also had what could be the best story every told by Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney was wise in taking Collodi's young sociopath and turning him into a more sympathetic character. Disney's Pinocchio is a well meaning, but naive fellow who is too often easily misled by those of low morality and as a result gives into his baser desires as a result. At the same time he truly wishes to become a real boy. In this way Pinocchio is a tale of growing up. The character of Pinocchio reflects most of us, who truly wish to be good people and truly wish to grow up into men and women. In learning ethics and morality from Jiminy Cricket and The Blue Fairy, then, Pinocchio is going through a process all of us have gone through. He is growing up. It is for this reason that the film, contrary to what Ben Sharpstein thought, continues to appeal to adults as much as, if not more so, it does children.

Pinocchio was recently re-released on DVD and released on Blu-Ray for the first time. There can be no doubt that it will not be the last time. Widely regarded as Disney's greatest achievement and by many as the greatest animated film of all time, it will continue to be enjoyed by young and old for years to come.